Nothing Ever Dies by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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Wars are fought twice, first on the battlefield and second in memory. A war is not just about shooting, but about people who make bullets and deliver bullets and, perhaps most importantly, those who pay for the bullets. Each ethnic group in the United States gets its own notable history by which Americans remember it: Vietnamese get the war.

That just about sums up the core of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Harvard University Press, 384 pp., $27.95, hardcover: $12.58 Kindle), an examination of the possibility of overcoming the residual scourges of war through discussing ethics, industries, and aesthetics. The book contains a continuous flow of truths and suppositions that merit support—or beg challenge.

From the opening pages, I recognized that Viet Nguyen’s philosophy of life differs markedly from mine. Consequently, I found the book difficult to read. However, I surrendered to the strength and persistence of his arguments and read every page. Throughout the book, I detected different voices in his style. Deep into the book, the voices grew more convincing. By the end, I felt loosely bonded with Nguyen’s arguments, but had reservations about what comes next.

Viet Nguyen was born in Ban Me Thuot in 1971. His parents had moved south from North Vietnam in 1954. His family came to the United States as refugees in 1975. He grew up in San Jose, California. At UC Berkeley, he earned degrees in English and ethnic studies and a Ph.D. in English. He teaches English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. His much-heralded Vietnam War-heavy novel, The Sympathizers, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Nothing Ever Dies focuses on the Vietnam War, but the arguments extend to the war’s repercussions in Laos, Cambodia, and South Korea. Viet Nguyen has traveled extensively across the areas he analyzes. His observations are eye opening, such as when he compares cemeteries of Vietnamese war casualties buried in Vietnam with American names on The Wall in Washington, D.C. His message is that nations tend to remember their own losses and forget the deaths of their opponents, with military casualties taking precedence.

Nguyen says that remembrance of war is a debt fully paid only when soldiers and civilians from both sides are included in recollections of good and evil events. That process allows a war to truly end and peaceful relations to ensue. Without reconciliation, war’s truth will be impossible to remember, and war’s trauma impossible to forget.

He chooses sides, favoring poor and weak nations that are victims of industrialized nations with more powerful armies. He stresses, however, that both sides overlook their ability to hurt others, which often results in inhumane actions. Forgiving inhumanities with emotions above the level of mere resignation is part of the remembrance process. In this regard, he analyses “the most horrific of horrors” inflicted by the Khmer Rouge on the Cambodian population, citing its difficulty to reconcile because “few are willing to acknowledge themselves as victimizers.”

Nguyen expands his idea of erasing the stigmas related to war by discussing war literature written by Vietnamese Americans. “Literature can raise the troublesome past of war and even the difficult present of racial inequality,” he writes, “so long as it also promises or hopes for reconciliation and refuge.”

He illustrates the benefits of war by explaining how participation by the South Korean army—and its 5,000 men killed in action in the Vietnam War—gave the nation a new role in global capitalization. He analyzes Korea’s post-war movies, masculinity, exploitation, and submission to “the American giant who has never learned to live outside his own world,” which has resulted in the “giant” recreating his environment wherever he goes. Faithful to his land of birth, Nguyen recalls the cruelty inflicted on Vietnamese when Koreans ran prison camps under Japanese occupation during World War II.

The description of visiting Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum flashed me back to the awe I felt in 1987 while walking through Lenin’s Tomb in Moscow. Seeing Ho’s body as either “a heroic statue or a gruesome zombie,” Nguyen belittles the legendary leader as a “stage prop for the Communist Party.” Comparatively speaking, seeing Lenin’s body produced a quasi-religious experience within me, making me nod in appreciation of a man who changed a nation and the world. Of course, neither man had stolen my country from my me and my family.

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Award-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen

One disappointment was Nguyen’s reliance on analyses of Vietnam War films. Basing conclusions on directors’ interpretations of the war left me less satisfied than, let’s say, using memoirs of participants from both sides. But it is what it is.

Nothing Ever Dies is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in General Nonfiction. The book was also a finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction. Nguyen also has earned several teaching and service awards.

—Henry Zeybel

Secrets and Lies in Vietnam by Panagiotis Dimitrakis

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“All’s fair in love and war,” Miguel de Cervantes once suggested, but he could have added “and in espionage.” Panagiotis Dimitrakis emphatically makes that point in Secrets and Lies in Vietnam: Spies, Intelligence, and Covert Operations in the Vietnam Wars (I.B. Tauris, 312 pp.; $57.14; $32,  Kindle). Dimitrakis examines the underworld of espionage in Vietnam by depicting the activities of agents and their masters from World War II to 1979.

An expert on intelligence and military history, Dimitrakis holds a doctorate in War Studies from King’s College London. Among a broad span of other work, he has written books on Afghanistan, the Cold War, and the Middle East.

Each chapter of Secrets and Lies in Vietnam focuses on individual spies and chronologically shows how North Vietnamese intelligence agents outwitted the French and more than held their own against the Americans. Dimitrakis heavily documents his writing with notes primarily from Western sources. He skillfully recreates stories that have been told before, but gives them new life by adding details that flesh out the people and events involved.

The first third of the book describes the turmoil in Vietnam from the end of World War II to the 1954 defeat of the French in Indochina. Dimitrakis writes about the intrigues among France, England, China, the Soviet Union, and the United States to influence the destiny of Vietnam. The country was rife with assassinations, bombings, sabotage, terrorism, raids, code breaking, theft of plans, signal intercepts, leaks, and duplicity. Dimitrakis weaves these factors together to present a succinct yet solid explanation for North Vietnam’s victory at Dien Bien Phu.

From there, he segues to the accomplishments of a Viet Minh mole who infiltrated the U.S. Saigon Military Mission in 1954. As North Vietnamese Gen.Vo Nguyen Giap put it: “We are now in the United States’ war room!”

Introducing the book, Dimitrakis says, “We will not analyze strategy, military operations, counterinsurgency, or international diplomacy.” Instead, “readers will witness events through the eyes of the spy.” Nevertheless, he provides a good deal of insight about military actions, much of which was new to me. For example, he describes United States-sanctioned black ops in the early 1960s against the Hanoi government. Similarly, he delves into the politics of leadership changes in South Vietnam.

The last third of the book provides the greatest enlightenment concerning espionage. The unpredictable interplay of personalities Dimitrakis unveils in the chapter titled “Molehunt and Spies in the Vietcong” shows the uncertainties of “the never-ending difficulty of intelligence gathering.”

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The author

He also follows the trail of lies and deception into the White House to assess Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s intrusion into intelligence work. The results of this research reminded me of The War after the War: the Struggle for Credibility during America’s Exit from Vietnam in which Johannes Kadura shows the president and his closest advisers colluding to mislead the entire nation for purely personal political reasons.

Books such as Secrets and Lies in Vietnam are important because they offer new perspectives about what happened in the war, both militarily and politically. Declassifying old government files and opening new sections of archives for perusal frequently reveal previously unobtainable facts. Even though the information is fifty or more years old, it is new to most people.

Panagiotis Dimitrakis—and similar scholars—merit praise for finding and presenting such facts in a highly readable format for the general public. More often than not, they permit veterans to validate complaints against leadership, especially inadequacies at higher levels.

—Henry Zeybel

Hornet 33 by Ed Denny

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We were flying south of Song Be in our C-130 the first time I heard a helicopter pilot in trouble. He came up on Guard and said, “I’m hit. Going down. Somebody come and get me,” with less emotion than I use to order breakfast.

Beginning with Bob Mason’s groundbreaking Chickenhawk in 1983, Vietnam War helicopter pilots have written memoirs that keep readers on the edges of their seats. Simply flying those cantankerous machines requires the best of anyone, but performing that feat in combat demands skills possessed only by pilots at a level higher than mere human beings. Of course, big balls help, too.

Memoirs by helicopter pilots who saw lots of combat such as Bill Collier, Robert Curtis, Tom Messenger, and Jim Weatherill rank as favorites. Ed Denny has grabbed equal billing with Hornet 33: Memoir of a Combat Pilot in Vietnam (McFarland, 296 pp.; $29.94, paper; $9.99, Kindle). This memoir tells the story of a draftee who volunteered for a helicopter training and went straight to Vietnam as a Warrant Officer.

Denny wastes no time with background. The book begins with his arrival in Cu Chi in March 1970. Assigned to fly the Huey UH-1H with the 116th Assault Helicopter Company, known as the Hornets, he became a leader within the group.

Denny’s word pictures of battles—particularly a large-scale friendly fire fuck-up during the opening day of the May 1970 Cambodian invasion—should erase any vestige of “the glory of war” from the minds of sane readers. He did and saw things that far exceeded normal levels of fighting, suffering, and killing, and describes many gory scenes. In one case, his description of a shattered and dying woman that he rescued reaches a graphic pitch almost beyond belief. Similarly, his actions during Operation Lam Son 719 in February and March of 1971 begin as a classic history lesson but evolve into another bloody and inhuman tale.

Denny’s imagination was his worst enemy. In daylight, because his commander taught him to “just take it” when the world exploded around his helicopter, Denny did not think past the moment. At night, however, he couldn’t ignore dreams flooded by gore. Predicated on the day’s latest horror, his imagination created nightmares that made Dante’s Inferno look like a Sunday school picnic. Despite therapy, imagination of his own painful death pursues him to this day.

Treatment for PTSD gave birth to Hornet 33. Denny wrote eighty-five true stories to expose the trauma of his war experiences for others to see. Guided by a desire to eliminate redundancy, he distilled those stories down to forty-five chapters, most of which concern combat and flying.

“How many times can a person say that the bastards tried to shoot me again and missed by a couple of inches one more time,” he rhetorically asks.

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Ed Denny in front of the Denton, Texas, County All-War Memorial – photo by Jeff Woo, Denton Record-Chronicle

Along with telling combat stories, Denny deals with with drugs, fragging, prostitution, Donut Dollies, R&R, PTSD, returning home, and Americal Division tactics. The Hornets flew with both the 25th Infantry at Cu Chi and 101st Airmobile Division at Chu Lai, thereby seeing first hand the difference between good and bad leadership. Denny’s opinions are highly personalized and do not follow the logic usually associated with these subjects.

Ed Denny has a way with words, using fresh similes and metaphors, few clichés, and conveying a sense of awe and wonder. The book tightly held my attention from start to finish.

The author’s website is hornet33.com

—Henry Zeybel

The Big Buddha Bicycle Race by Terence A. Harkin

Terence A. Harkin’s The Big Buddha Bicycle Race (Silkworm Books, 446 pp., $6.99, Kindle) and its sequel, In the Year of the Rabbit, are set in Ubon, Thailand, where Harkin served with the U.S. Air Force’s AAVS Detachment 3 during the Vietnam War. He’s currently at work on his third novel, Tinseltown Two-Step, set in Los Angeles and Chiang Mai. Harkin, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, spent twenty-five years as a Hollywood cameraman. His time in the Air Force well prepared him for that job.

Big Buddha is a work of fiction, but it often reads like a memoir of Harkin’s time in Thailand. He titles the book’s segment with dates such as “April 1970-March 1970,” and provides detailed place names, such as the 136th Photo Squadron at Norton Air Force Base, California, HQ of the Aerospace-Audio Base, California, Acronym AAVS, pronounced “Avis” in Air Force speak.

The main character, Airman Leary, failed to read his USAF enlistment contract closely, overlooking the words “Needs of the Air Force,” so he ended up closer to the war than his recruiting sergeant said he would. As a result, the reader learns a lot about the real-life duties and experiences of airmen in a photo squadron.

Airman Leary, a cameraman with the 601st Photo Squadron in Ubon, decides that it is a propitious time to put on a bicycle race “to keep up unit morale” because Nixon and Kissinger are going to visit. A bicycle race of “lovable Americans riding through the countryside to win Thai hearts and minds” would send a message to the world when featured in Life magazine and Stars & Stripes.

There is some resistance from the North Vietnamese 599th Transportation Group so things don’t go quite as planned. It turns out that the race didn’t work well as a celebration of the war winding down—or, more accurately, as the war began to fail to wind down as promised. Where is that light at the end of the tunnel?  Let’s pedal our asses toward it as hard as we can and see what happens.

Harkin has come up with an enjoyable read. The book, however, offers more information about the workings of a Photo Squadron in Southeast Asia than any of us will ever need. Or want. We get some of the same popular culture references we’d expect from such a novel: John Wayne westerns, John Ford, Babe Ruth, and Muhammad Ali. But there also are some not so likely ones:  Harmon Killebrew, Pinkie Lee, Guy Lombardo, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Suzy Wong, Wilfred Owens war poems and The Anderson Platoon. 

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Terry Harkin

This is a perfect book for a movie lover to read if he also wishes to get credit for reading a book about our war in Southeast Asia. Did I mention that Airman Leary is a white kid from the Boston suburbs who is a drummer in a band and that he loves the music of Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, and Sam Cooke?

That adds a layer of cultural meaning to the book. Probably the one thing this book does not need is another layer of cultural meaning. Consider it a bonus.

The author’s website is http://www.taharkin.net

—David Willson

No Place to Hide by Bill Sly

On July 19, 1969, the North Vietnamese Army nearly destroyed Alpha 2/2 (Mech) of the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division at Nui Ba Den mountain near Tay Ninh. American generals made bad decisions based on false assumptions resulting from faulty intelligence that led to the disaster.

Bill Sly discusses these events in great detail in No Place to Hide: A Company at Nui Ba Den (iUniverse, 182 pp. $13.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle). Sly served as the 2/2 historian after time in the field as an infantryman. He bases most of his reporting on interviews with survivors of the attack on the mountain.

Nui Ba Den (Black Virgin Mountain) rose to nearly a thousand meters and spanned a mile in width. The United States Army controlled the top and the perimeter around the mountain’s base, but the Eighty-Eighth NVA Regiment controlled everything in between. Plans called for 2/2 to scale the mountain, much in the manner of the taking of Hamburger Hill, while another American unit attacked from the top.

From there, planning disintegrated. Under temporary command of the 25th Infantry Division, the men of Alpha 2/2 were ordered to dismount from their vehicles and advance on foot, a decision that violated unit-level training. Furthermore, dismounting contradicted Vietnam War armored warfare tactics, which Sly explains. According to survivors, a 25th general said, “I want a body count,” and sent 2/2 up the mountain—without support from the unit on top.

The men walked into a trap. Finding themselves in open terrain and under highly concentrated fire from an enemy that held the high ground, the men of 2/2 made great sacrifices for each other as they split into smaller and smaller groups. They fought all day to extricate themselves from the area. The following day survivors with help from Charlie Company again went forward to recover bodies.

In the two-day encounter, Alpha had nine men killed in action and forty-four wounded. Charlie had two KIA and four WIA.

The Stars and Stripes portrayed the battle as a great American victory, which upset the participants. And then, Sly says, the battle appears to have been forgotten. (I searched internet but found no reference to it.) No Place to Hide is Sly’s contribution to setting the record straight.

The book also provides one more reminder of American Vietnam War folly for taking or securing terrain, regardless of the cost, only to eventually abandon it.

Sly writes from the heart. With a calm certitude, he validates the valor and fellowship of the men of Alpha 2/2. He neither editorializes nor pontificates in recreating two days of drama. Although he was on the scene in 1969, many of his endnotes refer to telephone conversations and letters dating from 1995. His research and the conclusions that he offers present valuable combat lessons.

—Henry Zeybel

Grandfather’s Journal by Tom Maxwell

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In an autobiography written for his grandson’s edification, Tom Maxwell chronologically recreates his past in Grandfather’s Journal: A Grandson’s Journey into His Grandfather’s Life (WestBow Press, 140 pp., $28.95, hardcover; $11.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle). The book covers Maxwell’s childhood as he traveled the world with an Air Force father; his military experiences as a Navy pilot and commander; and his career as a highly successful business executive who also ministered to people he calls “the least of these in our prison system.”  Maxwell sets exemplary standards for perseverance and dedication in every pursuit.

His Navy career stretched from 1955-83. He filled all the right squares while rising to the rank of Captain and a posting as an attaché in West Germany where he helped gather Cold War intelligence from the Soviet Union.

In 1967 and 1968 during the Vietnam War, Maxwell deployed twice to the Gulf of Tonkin aboard the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany. He flew two hundred missions in the KA3 Skywarrior, receiving credit for eighty-five “saves” of aircraft in distress. A short time later on a two-month TDY to Danang Air Base, he flew an additional fifty combat missions.

For most of his military career, Maxwell put his job first, even ahead of family needs. Occasionally in times of trouble, he prayed for help, but mainly as wish-fulfillment rather than with confidence in the powers of an almighty deity. Nevertheless, his prayers brought positive results. Then, at the age of forty-two, motivated by intensely focused reading and urging from his wife Betty Ann, Maxwell “accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.”

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Tom & Betty Ann Maxwell

The closing fifth of Grandfather’s Journal describes a life dictated by guidance that resulted from prayer. For thirty years as a civilian, Maxwell produced excellent results in both business relations and in his prison ministry work.

He disappointed me, however, by including only ten pages on his Vietnam War experiences in this book, just half of which dealt with events in the air.

The author’s website is captaintommaxwell.com

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

 

Asian Stained by W. Thomas Leonard

Now that I’ve read the stories in W. Thomas Leonard’s Asian Stained (BookBaby, 235 pp., $2.99, Kindle), I believe that the title indicates the author’s hard-held belief that the Vietnam War stains (or taints or besmirches) everyone who experienced it. This book starts off by introducing two Marines I assumed would be main characters, 2nd Lts. Kevin Charles Barrett and William Francis Kelly. Both are on the plane to Vietnam for their thirteen-month tour of duty. Leonard served as a Marine lieutenant in the Vietnam War in 1968.

Spoiler alert: Don’t read on if you want to be surprised.

These two young men have been best friends since they were nine years old. They both had just graduated from Fordham, with scholarships, in 1967. Not exactly a great time to graduate from college. They both promptly enlisted in the Marine Corps and were assigned to the 3rd Marine Division, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, winding up in Dong Ha, in Vietnam in I Corps close to the DMZ.

The book then skips forward fourteen years to the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Two old men are at the wall—a Mr. Barrett and a Mr. Kelly. They find the names of their sons—Kevin Barrett and William Kelly—right at the top of the panel where they expected them to be. We’ve read five percent of the book, at least according to my Kindle.

The next section is entitled “Deserters.” However, we don’t get to follow Barrett and Kelly’s tours in Vietnam. I can deal with that, but what does the reader get? Lots of stories that follow. Including at least three dealing with Marines being incarcerated in brigs, with much detail about that confinement.

Twenty percent of the way through the book the reader encounters magical realism in the form of a vision or a fantasy of something that looks like a large aircraft with no wheels. It’s V-shaped and has the form of a wall. “It’s where the past, the present and the future merged,” a Marine says.  

This is a bleak book, made up of many stories, often of second-generation Americans who were raised in this country of opportunity and served in a war that horribly scarred them or killed them. The dozen or so stories are rarely happy ones, not even a little bit.

Once we get past “Deserters,” we are presented with stories in which hard-working veterans are fired unfairly or treated brutally. The stories are well-written but often hard to read. I, for one, hate to read about people who are cast into outer darkness for no reason other than the fact that someone with power can do so.

In one of the stories near the end of the book the character, Alex Kazakov, returns from his war minus his vision and three of his limbs. He is a character we get to know well, so his terrible scarring and crippling really hits home. Tears came to my eyes as I read the bad stuff that happens to him.  He’s lost everything but his mind. He learns Braille and does make something of himself, earning a Master’s in Creative Writing.

The overwhelming message of Asia Stained is a warning to everyone to avoid serving in the Marine Corps, especially in the Vietnam War. I didn’t need convincing; I am not going to recommend to my children that they join the Marines. My father was a Marine on Iwo Jima. One was enough for this family.

Read this collection of stories if you want to consume a really sad book of well-written tales about Marines. Otherwise, read something else. I’m having major trouble getting these stories out of my mind. And out of my dreams.

—David Willson